During eight years as a volunteer working with displaced families in Egypt, Azza Kamel realised that many of the children she interacted with had simple aspirations beyond the basic necessities of life.
“‘I’d love to learn to play the guitar or I’d like to draw’ they would say. So obviously they wanted to [do these things], but they didn’t have the chance or opportunity,” Kamel says.
That is how Alwan Wa Awtar – Arabic for Colours and Chords – was established three years ago in eastern Cairo’s Mokattam Hills, an area which is home to government housing projects for the survivors of an earthquake in the 1990s and other limited income families.
The NGO’s goal is to promote visual and performing arts among impoverished children and teenagers as a character-building measure.
“I realised that art is used as a very strong tool for social development. So the idea came, why not have something that there’s a need for in the society and at the same time give it a developmental twist,” says Kamel, surrounded by a dozen excited children.
Though ancient Egyptians used art as a primary tool of expression – one that has been key in relaying their civilisation to the world thousands of years later – its status has been slipping in recent years.
Many in the Arab world’s most populous country view art as an elitist activity, with art classes often neglected in schools.
The United Nations’ Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation , or Unesco, maintains that arts education is not a luxury. A document published by the Paris-based body emphasises the way art contributes to enhancing problem-solving and communication skills.
But development is a slow and tedious process and one that requires changing habits, beliefs and, in some cases, tastes – particularly when it comes to an activity that does not immediately pay off.
This was the greatest challenge facing Alwan Wa Awtar at its inception.
“It’s not like charity, where you just give out meat or clothes,” Kamel says. “People didn’t understand what we’re doing. We don’t give out money. We don’t have a charitable arm whatsoever. So this was a big issue.”
Depending entirely on personal resources, private sector sponsors and donor agencies, the NGO offers training sessions in singing, acting, playing the guitar, keyboard and violin, acting, pottering, drawing and other activities.
Thirteen paid members of staff and a dozen volunteers oversee the training of some 4,000 children and teenagers every year.
Fourteen-year-old Hoda Mostafa, who has been coming to the community centre since it first opened, can now easily strum a guitar to the tune of the theme from The Godfather.
“I came here to learn about things we’re not exposed to in school. In my school, we don’t even have a guitar or a keyboard. I didn’t know how to draw until I came here,” she says proudly, hunched over a classic guitar. “I feel that I’ve completely changed.”
However, her new-found artistic skills are not the only change Mostafa has noticed. She says her English has improved and, most importantly, she has learned the valuable lesson of accepting and tolerating the “other” – be it the opposite sex or people from different countries (foreign trainers occasionally visit the centre).
The trainers say many of the children are shy and inhibited when they first join the centre, but that they slowly gain confidence and the ability to think independently.
Resting after an intense session of pantomime training, Mostafa Hozayen, a theatre instructor, says he has enjoyed witnessing the transformation in his students.
“The children come in with so much energy, energy they don’t know where to channel,” he says.
“We managed to employ this energy. You now see how some of these kids who used to play on the streets actually run acting auditions!”
Hozayen believes that the most valuable lesson the children learn is how to form a point of view and the realisation that they can make choices.
Critics of the Egyptian educational system have long complained about its lack of leadership-oriented training. Many contend that it is a draconian system dominated by memorisation rather than the reinforcement of critical thinking.
“What we do here will make a huge difference in these kids’ future,” Hozayen says.
Some of those who have graduated from the programme have already returned to train newcomers.
Although the centre’s focus is on the inspiration gained from the learning journey rather than on providing methods of income generation, some of the skills taught there, such as knitting, candle-making and pottery, have helped the students to make a living.
One former student has started a small candle-making business from her home and several others say they are thinking of benefiting from their craft.
Kamel says she is happy with the success of Alwan Wa Awtar to date – something that was recently acknowledged in an award from Michelle Obama, the US’ first lady.
However, she is now working hard to secure enough money to purchase more books for the library and would also like expand the centre’s work to include sports – something that would require a larger space and greater funding.
“I think what everybody needs is art,” she says. “It has nothing to do with whether you’re poor or rich.”